Left Voice published our “Manifesto for a Working Class Party that Fights for Socialism” with the goal of opening up a discussion with the Left and with sectors of the vanguard about the path forward to building an independent, socialist force in the United States. We know that a new party will not be built with organizational maneuvers, or by elections alone, but by open political discussion, debate, self-organization, and class struggle. We consider this manifesto a step toward that open discussion.
The following article by Warren Montag and Joseph Serrano is a response to the program put forward by Left Voice. We invite others who want to respond to the program to write articles as well. We also invite article submissions that discuss the path forward for an independent working class party.
We would like to thank Left Voice (LV) for the invitation to respond to its pamphlet Against Capitalist Despair: Building a Working-Class Party for Socialism. We want to begin by expressing our agreement with the basic orientation of LV’s call to discuss “how to set up a network for an independent party of the working class that fights for socialism.” We believe that, for several reasons, the need for such an initiative is increasingly apparent to a growing part of the Left and that the critical mass required to launch this process now exists.
As noted by LV in its document and by a series of articles by members of Tempest, one of the most important determinants of this opening is the recent experience of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), including the experience of those who worked within it and those who remained outside it. This experience constitutes an experiment whose results now can and should be evaluated. At the core of this experiment was not simply the attempt to build a broad-left party that included both revolutionary and reformist elements, already discussed in both Tempest and LV. More relevant is what the experiment reveals about the Democratic Party (DP) and the results of the attempt to transform it into a European-style social democratic party (or, more modestly, to return it to what it was in the 1960s).
As is well known, DSA’s most visible members and supporters in the House of Representatives committed some spectacular errors, from their support for extra funding for the defense of Israel to the forcing of a settlement on railroad unions to prevent them from launching a nationwide strike. For the large majority of those DSA members unhappy with the actions of its members of Congress, the problem was internal to DSA: the organization lacks rules on the political actions taken by its members elected to public office. Before 2018 or even 2020, little thought had been given to questions of accountability, or what used to be called “discipline.” Were elected officials who were also DSA members bound by the political positions adopted by majority vote at DSA conventions? This fundamental question remains unanswered, and in all likelihood will continue to remain, unanswered, given the depth of disagreement it has engendered in the organization. While this is an important issue, one that offers important lessons, we should not allow it to obscure a more fundamental problem: that of the DP itself.
Above, we referred to DSA members in Congress as having committed “errors,” not betrayals, because we want to understand how these people, who could have left DSA but chose not to, and who probably continue to think of themselves as socialists of some type, could decide to vote as they did. The question is not simply why DSA doesn’t hold its elected officials accountable (as even social democratic parties once did), but even more importantly why committed and open socialists whose support for Palestine appeared unshakable would vote to send more money to strengthen Israel’s Iron Dome, and why these self-professed supporters of the working class would vote to deprive the railroad unions of the right to strike and impose on them a deeply flawed settlement.
The answer lies in the specific character of the DP not simply in some abstract sense but in the current historical conjuncture. In Prisoners of the American Dream, Mike Davis referred to the DP as the graveyard of social movements, arguing that movements that begin independently of the DP, and inevitably against it, are initially used by it, as Dems attempt to ride waves of radicalization. These movements are then deceived into relying on legislation and substituting electoral work for mass action. At the moment of their triumph, they cease to be a threat to the status quo, and enter into a period of prolonged retreat with the result that their mass base is demoralized and demobilized. The fundamental conclusion drawn by the revolutionary left for the last century was that without powerful mass movements that neither took the road of foolhardy adventurism, nor backed down from confrontation when the stakes were high enough, especially when the adversary (whether the state or para-state fascist and white supremacist groups) lacked a decisive advantage, the state would not respond to calls for change, let alone initiate such change.
The dynamic of the Sanders campaign and the rapid growth of DSA in 2016 convinced many on the Left that these assumptions were flawed and that the DP was open to change, perhaps even transformation. The experiment of the past five to seven years, however, has shown that the conclusions reached by the revolutionary Left in the U.S. and elsewhere were correct and that the alternative hypothesis has failed the test of practice. The DP was not transformed by the interventions of DSA members; it was DSA, or at least a large part of it, that was transformed into an appendage of the DP. The strategy of building a mass base in the DP and then leading them out of it, to the promised land of political independence, or even more improbably, simply taking over the DP, now appears to have led a majority of DSA to see electoral work as the primary form of political action and the primary goal, the election of Democrats to office, an increasing number of whom will be members of DSA. This assumes, of course, that as elected DSA members move through the DP they will retain their basic political outlook and stated goals. Even if they manage to do so, however, they will find themselves isolated and ostracized by the “moderate” majority with whom they will have to make so many “temporary” compromises that they will effectively abandon their objectives. The money and institutional power lie in the hands of the party’s substantial neoliberal wing, to which many onetime socialists will find their way.
We would argue that this is the fundamental dividing line in the Left today. The orientation to the DP, with its illusory victories, has resulted in very real gains nationally for the Far Right. The latter has too often faced little or no opposition to its campaigns of violence and intimidation, which many Republican officeholders at every level of government support, whether openly or behind the scenes. Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans have understood that their electoral victories are meaningful and even possible when accompanied by a mass movement for which laws are to be obeyed only when the relationship of forces requires it, and perhaps not even then. The Far Right has infiltrated local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to such an extent that death threats and assaults, even those committed in the presence of law enforcement personnel, seldom result in legal action. Moreover, 30 states recognize the right to “open carry,” that is, to carry firearms in public, including to demonstrations, rallies, meetings, and, most recently, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, polling places. The Far Right proudly exercises this right whenever possible.
While a significant part of DSA either dismisses the threat of the Far Right as largely illusory or one that can be adequately addressed only through legislative action, the Far Right has busied itself organizing, unifying, and recruiting. Especially at the local and state levels, the right wing of the Republican Party has been strengthened by the real, physical power it can mobilize on the streets to terrorize queer and trans communities, as well as school boards and teachers, invading libraries and bookstores, attacking abortion clinics and demonstrations for abortion rights. Despite the highly publicized trials of more than 1,000 participants in the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the violence of the Far Right is generally carried out with impunity. The weight of white supremacy in law enforcement and the influence of groups like the Constitutional Sheriffs, whose members have declared themselves bound only by laws that they themselves determine to be compatible with the U.S. Constitution, is growing. Similarly, armed militias without any legal standing are allowed to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, to hold suspected unauthorized immigrants at gunpoint for an indeterminate period, and to search their persons and belongings. The power the Far Right exercises, its willingness and ability to resort to violence and intimidation, has attracted millions of sympathizers, especially in the military. Their power, moreover, has encouraged and even pushed a segment of Republican officeholders to embark on a cultural revolution to eliminate the study of the place of racism, as well as the long struggle against it, in U.S. history from public education even at the college level. The constant attacks on teachers and teachers’ unions will make winning raises and better conditions for both students and teachers far more difficult in the future. The Far Right has no illusions about the efficacy of law or the outcomes of elections, and this has allowed it to set the agenda of the Republican Party.
Although white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations have dismantled many of the gains of the civil rights movement, anti-racist and anti-fascist work remains marginal, as do organized campaigns against the wave of homophobic and transphobic mobilizations. Meanwhile, communities of specially oppressed people face constant attacks. Fortunately, there are signs that some elements of the Left are taking this work seriously. Revolutionary socialists should be at the center of this work. Our shared history is rich with examples of anti-fascist and anti-racist mobilizing in Latin America, Europe, and North America, examples from which the kind of network being proposed could draw as it develops its strategy and tactics for confronting and defeating the Far Right. But we should be very clear: this is a task that cannot be avoided.
How to proceed
1. Establish provisional points of unity for the network, the most basic of which would be an agreement not to support or work for the DP. This position, however, raises another, perhaps more complicated question of “independent political action,” that is, participating in campaigns, whether at the local or national level, of progressive third parties, such the Green Party. Automatically supporting third parties, simply because they claim to be progressive, is both politically unwise and a potential waste of resources. We need to have a general discussion of the utility of third-party campaigns, not in the abstract but in the concrete circumstances of a given election. How does participating in a given campaign mobilize greater numbers of activists in other movements and help unify the revolutionary Left? Does it have a mass base, or will the organized Left supply most of the labor? Does a given party have a platform that its candidates adhere to, or is it a collection of “free agents”?
The points of unity at this stage should allow the groups involved to work together and discuss their joint work, as well as identify the areas we regard as priorities. Each of the participating groups will continue to have their own events and sites of intervention, just as they will continue to recruit and educate members in their various traditions. We firmly believe that the different traditions, despite differences in terminology and emphasis, can productively work together. What we share far outweighs our differences.
Yet it is also necessary to draw a line of demarcation between what we might call significant and insignificant differences. One of the major differences dividing the revolutionary Left today, even among those like Tempest and LV, which have much in common, is the understanding of and response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is unlikely that such a difference will be resolved in the near future (and it is also easy to see how it might prevent joint work beyond the form of immediate interventions). It is no easy task to determine how groups continue to work together despite such differences (those differences that already exist and those that will certainly arise in the future). Doing so will require much effort.
2. We should agree to coordinate the work of the participants in the network in one or two areas of common activity: union organizing campaigns, anti-fascist/anti-racist action, abolition, abortion rights/clinic defense, UAW solidarity, climate change, Palestine solidarity, etc. This will entail an initial evaluation of the movement and agreement on objectives, followed by regular meetings.
There have already been some promising developments. In response to the attacks on abortion rights, LV, Tempest, and other groups and activists organized a demonstration of more than 20,000 people in New York City. A formal network could foster more coordinated actions, especially when they must be built quickly. It is ultimately up to the network to experiment, to see what works and what does not.
A network of this type could serve as a pole of attraction for the individuals and groups, formal and informal, in DSA who find themselves at odds with the organization’s continuing assimilation into the DP, as well as for the many small collectives that have emerged across the U.S. in response to the threat of the Far Right. Such activists can see the advantages of an organization that discusses and evaluates its work in various movements; that can educate its members through regular presentations on class struggles internationally, as well as on the history of the revolutionary traditions represented in the network; and that, most importantly of all, understands its work as an ongoing series of interventions in movements to increase their power and political independence.
A network of this type would represent an important step in building a revolutionary Left that can organize and lead struggles in the U.S. and support those taking place internationally.